Learning About the Diet for Swallowing Problems

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What are swallowing problems?

Difficulty swallowing is also called dysphagia (say "dis-FAY-jee-uh"). It is most often a sign of a problem with your throat or esophagus. This is the tube that moves food and liquids from the back of your mouth to your stomach.

Trouble swallowing can occur when the muscles and nerves that move food through the throat and esophagus are not working right. To help you swallow food, your doctor or speech therapist may advise a special dysphagia diet for you.

Why is a special diet important?

A dysphagia diet can help you handle some problems that can occur when it's hard to swallow food and liquids easily. These problems can include:

  • Malnutrition. This means you aren't getting enough healthy foods to keep your body working well.
  • Dehydration. This means you aren't getting enough liquids to keep your body healthy.
  • Aspiration. This means that food, liquid, or saliva goes down your windpipe (trachea) into your lungs, instead of down your esophagus to your stomach. This can lead to aspiration pneumonia, which is an inflammation of the lungs.

What is the dysphagia diet?

In the dysphagia diet, you change the foods you eat and the liquids you drink to make it easier to swallow them. You may:

  • Change the texture of the foods you eat. Your doctor or speech therapist may advise you to eat one of these types of foods:
    • Easy-to-chew foods. These are foods that are soft or tender.
    • Soft and bite-sized foods. These are soft foods that have been cut into small pieces.
    • Minced and moist foods. These are very soft, small, and moist lumps of food that need very little chewing.
    • Pureed foods. These are foods that have been blended smooth. The puree must be thick enough to hold its shape on a spoon. These foods don't need to be chewed.
    • Liquidized foods. These are foods that have been blended smooth but are not as thick as pureed foods. You can drink them from a cup.
  • Thicken the liquids you drink. Your doctor or speech therapist will tell you what kind of thickener to use and how thick to make the liquids.
    • Slightly thick liquids. These are thicker than water but can flow through a straw.
    • Mildly thick liquids. These can be sipped from a cup but take some effort to drink with a straw.
    • Moderately thick liquids. These liquids are thick enough to drink from a cup or from a spoon. But they are hard to drink through a wide straw.
    • Extremely thick liquids. These are thick enough to hold their shape on a spoon. They are too thick to drink from a cup or suck through a straw.

Your speech therapist will help you learn exercises to train your muscles to work together so you can swallow. You may also need to learn how to position your body or how to put food in your mouth to be able to swallow better.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.